Why are dissenting Catholics so pleased with Pope Francis when there’s little likelihood he’ll change Catholic doctrine? Damon Linker (why do I recognize that name?) takes up the question, and his answer is a good one: To most Catholics it simply doesn’t matter what the Church teaches on contraception and divorce.

Linker is understandably confused by this indifference. “The question I’d want to ask these liberals,” he writes, is “Why do you continue to attend church and think of yourself as a Catholic?”

Indeed. As recently as 1968, Church statements were able to galvanize the faithful—-for or against. Now, what the Church teaches on contraception affects their lives as much as what the Chicago Rabbinical Council teaches about quinoa, or what the USDA certifies as organic. How can Catholics, once caricatured as foot soldiers of Rome, now be so blithe?

That framing is, I think, too unfair to dissenters and too kind to those charged with teaching the faith. For the past fifty years, indifference to Church teaching has been actively encouraged by bishops, priests, and catechists. Official episcopal announcements, books from Catholic presses, winking homilies, and a culture of silence on moral matters not only gave room for dissent but made assent actively difficult. Catholics in the pews simply followed the cues.

Take the reception of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which the Church reiterated the ancient, unanimous Christian teaching against contraception. Paul VI issued the statement on July 25, 1968. The next month the Archbishop Plourde of Ottawa wrote his own letter saying that Catholics had the right “to reach a judgement different from that of the Holy Father.” In September, the bishops of Canada gathered in Winnipeg and published a statement saying couples ”may be safely assured that whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.” Bishop Alexander Carter, president of the conference said that he and his brother bishops faced the “necessity of making a statement which many felt could not be a simple ‘Amen,’ a total and formal endorsement of the doctrine of the encyclical.”

Things took a similar course south of the forty-ninth parallel. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops opined, not very helpfully, “There exist in the Church a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought and also general norms of licit dissent. This is particularly true in the area of legitimate theological speculation and research.” Avery Dulles wrote in America, “In view of the American tradition of freedom and pluralism, it would be a serious mistake to use the encyclical as a kind of Catholic loyalty test. Nothing could so quickly snuff out the spirit of per­sonal responsibility, which has done so much to invigorate American Catholicism in the past few years.”

The hem-hawing of Church leaders led to confusion in the pulpit and pews. Unwilling to deny Church teaching directly, disoriented by conflicting signals, homilists and confessors fell silent.

A similar thing happened with divorce. Rather than deny the Church’s teaching, American dioceses granted backdoor divorces through the liberal use of annulments. As of 2007, the U.S. accounted for 60 percent of annulments granted globally despite being home to only 6 percent of the Catholic flock. Dioceses like Brooklyn gained popularity as “annulment factories.”

Both these developments reflected what Archbishop Antoni Stankiewicz calls an “anthropological pessimism” that holds “it’s almost impossible to get married, in view of the current cultural situation.” Modern man, in this view, is twice fallen. Bishops ceased to believe the faithful were capable of following Church teaching, and so they ceased to teach it by discipline and word. In light of this, the reaction of the faithful is more than understandable. Why would they take seriously a teaching their pastors refuse to?

At the end of the day, it’s not that dissenting Catholics don’t care what the Church teaches; it’s that the Church has taught them not to care. To that lesson, they’ve paid close attention.

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